Sofia Coppola: Sofia's world

With her film-royalty father and a host of famous friends, it would have been all too easy for Sofia Coppola to be just another Hollywood brat. But her debut film 'The Virgin Suicides' promised much, and her latest, 'Lost In Translation' delivers. Craig McLean hears why she owes it all to a karaoke version of 'God Save the Queen'
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Bill Murray was playing hard to get. The slump-faced actor is famously choosy about the roles he plays. His post-Ghostbusters II antipathy towards sequels meant that this summer's Charlie's Angels 2: Full Throttle had to make do without his Bosley.

Murray had had a copy of Sofia Coppola's Lost In Translation script for a while, but wasn't getting back to her. Her famous surname - which had previously opened Hollywood doors that might be closed to other young filmmakers - seemingly counted for nothing when it came to the comedy-drama icon.

Unfortunately for Coppola, just as she was certain that she wanted to make her second feature in Japan, so she had begun writing with Murray in mind for the lead role. "As I was writing it, I pictured him sitting on a bed in a kimono," she says sitting delicately in a suite in London's Dorchester hotel. "I was thinking, 'What would Bill be like in this situation, what would his expression be?'" More than that, simply thinking of Murray speaking her words made Coppola's first original screenplay "fun to write".

She had been turned on to a new side of Murray by Rushmore, which was directed by her friend Wes Anderson. Murray's air of crumpled vulnerability was perfect for her character Bob Harris, a middle-aged actor visiting Japan to film a lucrative but soul-sapping commercial. Back home in the States, Harris's marriage is seemingly moribund. Stranded alone in a Tokyo hotel and suffering from punishing jet-lag, his professional life is equally mouldering. Also rattling round the Park Hyatt in a daze is Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), the bored young wife of a hipster rock photographer. The two strike up an unlikely friendship. And that, just about, is it.

On paper, it doesn't sound much. Little surprise then that Murray reportedly didn't get it on first reading. But Coppola wasn't going to give up, even though she was starting to spend serious money on a project that lacked a leading man. A director she knew was also in pursuit of Murray, but gave up after six months. She called and called again. Murray speaks of her persuasive telephone manner. "She's made of steel," he says admiringly. After eight months, he agreed to be in Lost In Translation.

"Even then, we were in Tokyo [to shoot] and we still didn't know if he was going to turn up," Coppola recalls with a faint smile. "He said he was going to but we didn't have a contract or anything."

But he's old school...

"Exactly, I had his word, I was going on that. But a part of me was still thinking, 'This is an original screenplay, is it just indulgent? Will anyone care about this?' But I just wanted to make it, and I just wanted to see it, and it didn't really matter about anything else, or what anyone else thought."

If Murray had said no, would she have abandoned the whole thing?

"Yeah," she says, quietly but firmly. "People would say to me, 'Think of another choice [of actor].' But the whole thing was I didn't want to make this movie without Bill Murray. And I really wanted to make it in Tokyo. In my dreams, that was what I would do. There was no choice."

It would be easy to ascribe the 32-year-old Coppola's can-do attitude to her famous parentage: you don't grow up with Francis Ford Coppola as dad and not absorb some of the master filmmaker's traits. She will say casually, with the air of someone who spent much of their childhood on film sets, "In films, yes, you really have to be relentless to get the film you want made. People are gonna say no, but you have to keep going."

It's equally easy to surmise that having been married until recently to Spike Jonze (the pair have just announced that they intend to divorce) she understands better than most how to wrangle big stars into unusual situations. As a film director Jonze famously had John Malkovich lend his name, and his head, to his first film Being John Malkovich; as a pop-video auteur, Jonze took Christopher Walken back to his dancing roots for Fatboy Slim's "Weapon of Choice". Pre-marriage, Jonze also somehow convinced a young Coppola to star as a gymnast in his video for the Chemical Brothers's "Elektrobank" single.

But this is only one Sofia Coppola, the one we know by association and relation. There is another version, an accomplished fashion photographer and clothes designer who is resolutely her own woman and, already, the complete filmmaker. Her debut feature, The Virgin Suicides, an adaptation of Jeffrey Eugenides's acclaimed 1993 novel about five suicidal sisters trapped in the Midwestern suburbs in the 1970s, is a soulful modern classic of independent filmmaking. And the small budget ($4m) Lost In Translation is heavily fancied for success at February's Academy Awards. The fact that the Oscar heat is centred around Murray shows that her single-minded pursuit was not, as she feared, pure indulgence. Artistically, it was intuitive and inspired.

And then there's another Coppola, a shy, mellow, almost airy-fairy type who couldn't ooze steely resolve any less if she tried. This incarnation is the woman sitting in front of me today.

She is dressed in understated and comfortable fashion-black, and talks in a ghostly, high-register whisper that I later discover is barely captured by my tape-recorder. Sitting primly in an elaborately upholstered chair, she shifts awkwardly in an effort to loosen a shoulder cramped by weeks of flying round the US and Europe promoting Lost In Translation. Slight of frame and pale of face, Coppola is the woman who isn't there.

Yet her two feature films wouldn't be the way they are - measured, stately, empathetic, resonant, quiet - if she wasn't the way she is. "I am kinda shy. I don't get louder or extroverted. But for work I'm determined, you have to be. I would never be that shameless about pursuing a guy or something, or anything else!" she laughs lightly.

Coppola's first film role was in The Godfather, when she was a baby (she played Michael Corleone's newborn). Aged six, she spent time on the set of Apocalypse Now. "My mom has pictures of me sitting in the Philippines, drawing helicopters and explosions and palm trees," she says. She was always drawing, she says, by way of giving a quickfire rundown of how her creative interests developed. At the family's Napa Valley estate outside San Francisco, "We'd make little home movies all the time. I went to art school to study painting, then started to take pictures just because it was faster. Instant gratification. Just snapshots."

Stuck out in the country she would read French Vogue and UK style magazines, developing a love of fashion that briefly took her to Paris to work for Karl Lagerfeld when she was 15. "I tried a bunch of things - I didn't want to wake up one day when I was in my fifties and think, 'What if I'd done that?'"

This, she insisted, was not why she took the role of Mary Corleone in The Godfather III - an endeavour for which she was (to be frank, rightly) crucified. "I never wanted to be an actress, it's just not in my nature." Her dad asked her to step in after Winona Ryder pulled out. "Instead of going back to college, I could stay in Italy and be in the movie. I didn't really think about it. I was 18."

Burned by the experience, she threw herself into photography and fashion. By her early twenties her wariness over being pushed into the family business had begun to evaporate. After reading The Virgin Suicides she wrote a script adaptation, quietly, for herself. No matter that the rights were already owned by a production company; she gave them the unsolicited script anyway. They liked it. Then, when the slated director bailed, she took her chance and asked if she could direct. Her commitment * got her the gig. "I just felt something strong about the book," she says. "I felt protective about it, so I felt I had to make the movie."

Not only did the novice filmmaker coax intense turns from veterans James Woods, she pulled luminous performances out of young leads Josh Hartnett and Kirsten Dunst. The dreamy whole was filmed in drowsy, saturated tones, the better to capture the air of somnolent 1970s Midwestern suburbia. With a director who was equally sussed about music, The Virgin Suicides had two wonderful soundtracks, one featuring accurately retro music, the other by French sonic painters, Air.

"It seemed like all the elements were connected. I had a really cool idea of how I wanted the art direction and the music to work in the film. And the atmosphere of the book had an essence to it that I was just trying to translate to film. That to me was interesting: how to take a feeling."

Coppola fell in love with the idea of shooting in Tokyo after visiting the Japanese capital several times in her early and mid-twenties. She is a partner in a Japanese fashion label called Milk Fed, and while she no longer has the time to help design, she looks after the photography and visual side of the business. Its clothes sell mainly in Japan where it has a dedicated store, Heaven 27.

"Tokyo is just so different from anywhere I've ever been," she continues, sniffing slightly from a cold she's shaking off. "Driving at night, listening to music, watching the neon - I just wanted to do something that was set in [that world]."

What were you trying to convey with the character of Charlotte?

"I wanted to have a smartass prep-school girl who was having an existential breakdown. I always like those characters in stories, it's kind of a JD Salinger idea. I remember seeing Scarlett in this film, Manny & Lo, and she has this great deadpan quality. I wanted banter between the characters."

The relationship between this middle-aged man and this young woman is beautifully played out. There are scenes heavy with intimacy in hotel bedrooms, but never spoiled by the obvious touchy-feely sexuality that a more cack-handed director would resort too. There are tender exchanges in bars and restaurants as Bob and Charlotte try to help each other with the direction their lives are taking. There are funny bits, too, with Bob stuck in his whisky-ad hell, and in a karaoke bar. Murray's rendition of Roxy Music's "More Than This" is already deemed to be the classic scene of a classic film.

Yet although the backdrop is this famously frenetic 24-hour city, the pacing of Lost In Translation - just as The Virgin Suicides was almost balletic - is slow and graceful.

"I guess I'm just like that," says Coppola. "I like movies that aren't so much story-driven, but you feel like you're in a place. I like writing that way. But it's always a mystery how it all works out because I don't have it all planned. It's like a collection of moments."

Coppola is an inveterate gatherer of scenes and ideas, and carries a stills camera almost religiously - her on-set photography from The Virgin Suicides is as beautiful as the film itself. To bolster her Lost In Translation script, she assembled a book of photographs she had taken on research trips to Japan. As well as the broad idea of shooting in a culture far removed from the US or Hollywood, she had also stored away much specific detail from previous visits. The over-the-top Australian lounge singer in the Park Hyatt bar - where Coppola stays when on Milk Fed business - is an actual performer in the hotel; one scene stars a real-life friend of Coppola's, Fumihiro Hayashi, indulging in his party piece.

"He has a fashion magazine there called Dune. His nickname is Charlie Brown. I'd seen him sing 'God Save the Queen' at parties and I always wanted to put that in a movie. So the whole movie started with just being there - and I also wanted to make something sweet and romantic, I felt in the mood for that."

Is it a love story?

"Uh, yeah, I guess so. It's about [the space] in between friendship and love, but yeah, it's a love story. I liked the idea of mid-life crisis, so I tried to combine those things."

There have been suggestions in the US press that Lost In Translation - with its moribund marriages - is largely autobiographical. Coppola will only say that there are "personal aspects to it". Certainly, the character of Charlotte's husband John (Giovanni Ribisi, who also did the voiceover for Virgin Suicides), in his nervy mannerisms, distracted/obsessive air, even down to his rumpled clothes, is very similar to Jonze, who is also a photographer.

John is, she concedes, "a little bit" like Jonze, "but it's more based on this whole rock-photographer type. But Giovanni did do some mannerisms that reminded me of Spike - I do not know where they came from!" she says amusedly. "I was like, 'Oh my God!' But Spike is definitely not like that guy."

Such speculation is fuelled by the couple's imminent divorce. The fact that Coppola spent much of her post-Tokyo time in New York, away from the couple's LA home, could not have helped their situation.

Coppola admits that it was "rough being apart so much. Also, editing is so isolating. When I was editing The Virgin Suicides in LA, you drive in your car to this little room, spend hours there, then drive home. There's more hours spent just waiting around. In New York [where Lost In Translation was edited] at least you can walk around and see people."

Being in New York also afforded the supremely well-connected Coppola (see box, below) time to indulge some of her other interests. She designed a canvas bag for New York-based fashion designer Marc Jacobs, a long-term friend, Jacobs has formulated a perfume seemingly "inspired" by Coppola. How does one inspire a smell?

Coppola laughs with embarrassment. Handily, she has a mouthful of cheese-and-ham toastie, swigged down by a lunchtime Becks ("You need beer for greasy food," she says soberly), so can avoid answering.

What does it smell like? She's not sure. All she knows is that another friend, photographer Juergen Teller, took her picture for the ad. "It was fun, you know," she mumbles. "Another side of yourself."

New York was also the location for her video to the White Stripes's cover of "I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself". The band had sent the track to the Directors' Bureau, the LA-based filmmaking co-operative partly established by Coppola's brother Roman. Without thinking about it too much she came up with a treatment: Kate Moss pole-dancing. After completing work on Lost In Translation, "It was great to do something that just took a week," she shrugs.

Francis Ford Coppola's Napa Valley estate has its own well-regarded vineyard. They produce a champagne, which Papa Coppola has named Sofia. The bottle label describes Sofia as "revolutionary, petulant, reactionary, ebullient, fragrant, cold, cool".

Which adjective is closest to the real Sofia?

"I'm not even gonna acknowledge that!" she says good-naturedly but dismissively. "It's just embarrassing - your dad makes a thing for you and people see it and they're asking you [simpering voice], 'Oh, is that really you?'" She laughs, not a little discomfitted.

So she's been married to Spike Jonze, calls Francis Ford Coppola dad, has inspired a perfume and a champagne and is super-connected. Big deal. Lost in Translation proves once and for all that Sofia Coppola is a huge talent in her own right.

'Lost in Translation' opens on 9 January

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